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Lynwood Voters Recall Councilman

Longtime official Paul Richards, dogged by accusations of corruption, is replaced by Maria Santillan, one of six challengers.

September 24, 2003|Richard Marosi | Times Staff Writer

Lynwood voters on Tuesday ousted longtime Councilman Paul Richards, a 47-year-old attorney who dominated politics during the city's economic turnaround but whose tenure was dogged by accusations of corruption and nepotism.

The final tally in the special recall election showed 60% of the voters in favor. One of Richards' six challengers, Maria Santillan, a benefits administrator, was chosen to replace him. She received 38% of the vote. Santillan was embraced by a jubilant, teary-eyed supporter outside City Hall as the votes were counted.

"If this goes through, this is history," said Santillan, who becomes the first Latina council member in the history of the mostly Latino community of 70,000. "I think it's a wake-up call not only for Lynwood but surrounding cities ... even Paul Richards can be beat."

Richards could not be reached for comment Tuesday evening.

The recall campaign turned on sharply differing views of Richards' 17-year tenure on the council.

His supporters said Richards helped remake the working-class city in southeast Los Angeles County. Once plagued by blight and gangs, the city has enjoyed a recovery in recent years with crime down and shopping centers rising on vacant lots.

But opponents said Richards was more a political con man than turnaround artist. They accused him of nepotism and of trying to steer a $1-million consulting contract to his sister, among other things. They also said he misspent taxpayer money on travel, perks and salaries. Richards, whose city income has topped $100,000 per year, is among the state's highest-paid part-time politicians.

Richards' use of his city-issued credit card also became an issue during the campaign, with recall proponents going door-to-door with his credit card statements. Richards has made more than $70,000 in purchases since 1998, using his credit card for expenditures ranging from travel to beach resorts and expensive steakhouse dinners.

"There's a lot of crooked stuff going on," resident Virginia Tapia said after casting her vote Tuesday.

The district attorney has opened an investigation into alleged misuse of public funds by Richards.

Richards has denied wrongdoing, saying that his spending is geared toward seeking business and funding opportunities for Lynwood.

"This city has been rebuilt during my term in office," he said. "You see new hospitals, schools, parks, streets, shopping centers. The city has benefited bountifully from my active participation."

The recall effort was marked from the start by charges and countercharges of irregularities and fraud. Proponents once spent the night at City Hall, saying they feared city officials allied with Richards would tamper with the petitions.

Richards, who is African American, accused his opponents of running a racist campaign that used fraudulent means to gather more than 1,000 signatures. His City Council allies accused recall proponents of using unregistered circulators to gather petitions.

Richards said the circulators went door to door, asking residents to get rid of "the two black guys" on the five-member council. Louis Byrd, a Richards ally, is also African American and is on the ballot in a regularly scheduled election in November.

A judge at one point said the City Council was dragging its feet in making election preparations and that he was willing to help proponents keep the recall on track if the council made any "last minute attempts to sabotage the election."

Citing the complaints by both sides, the California secretary of state's office sent a monitor to oversee the election.

Resident Marva Thompson said after voting Tuesday that she was pleased with Richards' efforts to improve the city and reluctant to condemn him because of the accusations against him.

"I'm not one to judge anyone," she said. "He has to answer to a higher power."

But the Rev. Leroy Guillory, who said he voted against the recall, called it "a terrible thing for the African American community in Lynwood.... It feels as though the Latinos are telling us you have outlived your welcome here in Lynwood."

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